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A CurtainUp Review
The Underpants

It was Descartes who said that we exist.— Versati

Someone had to say that?— Theo

The Underpants
Steve Routman, Jeff McCarthy, Jenny Leona and Burke Moses (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)
Cole Porter's lyrics said it most succinctly: "a glimpse of stocking…was looked on as shocking" — and that was in the daring 1930's. Imagine what such a sighting must have been like in sexually repressed Germany at the beginning of the 20th century.

A variation on that suggestive opportunity is the serio-comic event that triggers The Underpants at Hartford Stage. Adapted by "wild and crazy" comedian-playwright-author, Steve Martin, from Die Hose, a German farce by Carl Sternheim, Underpants is a fast and frantic giggle of a play.

Poor Louise Maske (Jenny Leona). All she wanted was to wave at, and perhaps be seen by the King as he rode by in a parade on the streets of Dusseldorf.

, But in reaching for the sky for a high wave, snap -went the knot holding up her underpants and down they fell to the ground. Even though she quickly stepped out of them and hid them away, the damage was done.

Theo (Jeff McCarthy), her blustering — slave to bourgoise values — husband is embarrassed beyond belief. A non-entity, he says "I'm a civil servant.I blend in." He fears he might lose his job in the government, and has complained to Louise that she is too attractive for a man in his position.

Jeff was not the only once who caught sight of the "unmentionables" and the bit of ankle that came into view.No sooner than returning to their meager apartment after the parade, a couple of men, who also spied Louse's accident, show up offering to rent the room the couple is planning to lease to make ends meet.

It's clear both have something else in mind than location, location, location. The first is Versati (Burke Moses), a dandified peacock of a poet who almost swoons over his own romanticism. If he lusts after Louise it is only because she can play a part in his self-adoration scenario.The second is Cohen (Steve Routman), a bald, nerdish Jewish man who would be happy just to fantasize in Louise's presence.

Urging Louise on to a possible liaison with Versati, her upstairs friend, gossip and matchmaker Gertrude (Didi Conn) also suffers from unrequited passion. At one point having gotten herself so aroused with the possibilities of hanky-panky, she opens the door to the refrigerator, lifts her skirt and cools her private parts.

Subtle this is not. And just so. Martin has injected some smart, contemporary attitudes into the game. Even though some of them are show off. For example, when Gertrude says she has gone to the theater to see a play by Sternheim and it "needs adaptation" the wit is decidedly Martinesque.
The actors are very funny indeed. McCarthy is like a small bassoon stuffed into a suit, while Moses gives Versati a preening veneer that is only a few steps away from Liberache.

Routman's apologetic Cohen ("with a k") is a sharp reminder about how early German society began its steady march towards deadly prejudices. His rubber limbed progress up the stairs after imbibing a killer dose of sleeping potion is physical comedy at its best.

Leona makes a lovely Louise and when she begins to awaken to the possibilities of more than wieners for dinner she is a delight. Conn pulls out all the stops as the vicarious partner in Louise's adventures. George Bartenieff gives an almost Beckett like performance as Klingelhoff, another would-be tenant who is surprisingly on the level. More's the pity for him - unwittingly stepping into a revolving circus of loosed libidos and amateur seducers.

Lee Savage's set is a working combination of modern (the stairs and upstairs balcony) with the prerequisite doors, and period middle class kitchen. Amusing costumes by Jess Goldstein are in complete harmony with the characters' personas. Especially colorful is the royal garb for a surprise visitor at the end. An appearance that reminded me of a similar surprise in the staging of The Threepenny Opera.

Without sounding menacingly Teutonic, David Budries's sound design includes some sharp blares and an occasional polka tune. Director Gordon Edelstein has staged this farce with a knowing hand and he and his cast are to be congratulated for delivering such a fun respite from winter.

Although the curtain call —a conga-line of the actors is getting to be an old hat device— here, with all in their underwear ,its justified and jolly.

It's all a bit naughty and some sight gags are pretty gross. Nevertheless, it's still appropriate for those 16 and over or anyone mature enough to know how to laugh at human foibles.

The Underpants by Steve Martin, adapted from Carl Sternheim
Directed by Gordon Edelstein
Cast: Jeff McCarthy (Theo Maske), Jenny Leona (Louise Maske), Didi Conn (Gertrude), Burke Moses (Versati), Steve Routman (Cohen), George Bartenieff (Klingelhoff)
Set design: Lee Savage
Costumes: Jess Goldstein
Lighting design: Robert Wierzel
Sound design: David Budries
Wigs and hair design: Charles LaPointe
Stage manager: Melissa M. Spengler
Through February 9
A joint production of Hartford Stage and the Long Wharf Theatre at Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford, Ct.
Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8, and matinees Sundays and select Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets are $25 to $85. Discounts for groups of 10 or more, and for students (recommended for ages 16 and up). Reviewed by Chesley Plemmons at the Sunday matinee, January 26.
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